Sunday, November 21, 2010

The right messages?

Facebook announced a refresh of their messaging product this week that it was suggested (especially before the announcement) would turn into an email killer.

Having watched the Facebook event video and Mark Zuckerberg’s couch session from the Web 2.0 summit that followed the announcement, it’s made me wonder whether this is the right context to try and frame the new messages product into – as an alternative to email. I think a lot of the commentary has missed what he’s described messages to be.

It is centred around Facebook’s idea of email if it were designed in the social era. They take a look at email as one part of a mix of communications tools and suggest that all we’re actually interested in doing when we send email is communicating with our friends, and that a lot of the other email we receive is less important and therefore needs less of our attention. They also suggest that now we have so many different ways of communicating with our friends, we should communicate across whatever medium is most convenient for us, without it impacting on the receiver.

Their solution is to integrate our main communication tools (email, SMS, instant messaging) into one platform, so that our communications with the same person can be viewed as a continuous flowing conversation irrespective of the channel. And as they have list of all our friends (the social graph or the friend list to me and you), they have the means to do this for us.

The logic is sound but Google Wave was also broadly described as what email would be like if it were designed today and that has been consigned to the scrapheap. An earlier blog post of mine discussed this issue in more detail but in summary I think Google Wave would have had a better chance of surviving if it integrated Gmail (and email in general) into it so our old email habits could work with their new idea.

Facebook have done this by including email as part of the mix of tools that the new messages platform will aggregate. They have done what Google didn’t do with Wave, so in theory it should do what Wave wanted to do and replace email, correct?

Well not necessarily.

Wave tried to re-design email but also added something to it – the real time, conversational aspect. They offered us in line replies, allowed us to have group conversations as well as private conversations within a large group and share documents/media. If you look at the technology it was very clever. It could even be argued that it was too clever and too far ahead of the average user’s requirements.

Facebook messages is a lot more lowest common denominator in terms of its use cases and appeals to the masses (we all use Facebook already after all) but has it actually added anything new? All it’s done is taken our existing conversations and archived them together in one place.

It’s the communications equivalent of housekeeping. It’s a very clever (and useful) filtering algorithm using a sophisticated database but It’s no different in principle to Gmail’s priority inbox function, or a well developed set of email filters. Admittedly it already has the filters developed thanks to the friend list we have on Facebook but it’s not difficult to imagine any other email filtering system or programme getting up to speed pretty quickly.

My other gripe with this idea of Facebook messages replacing email is how reliant we are on email without realising. It’s our primary method of communication with the world outside of our friends. Clients, customers, colleagues…everyone. Not only is it a communication tool, but it is an identity tool. I would argue that 99% of websites requiring a login use email. Either directly as a username or as a means to acquire a username. Even Facebook itself needs your email address to log in to it. Am I really going to go round the internet changing this? No chance.

Facebook’s connect technology that allows you to log in to websites using your Facebook login could solve this, but if you extrapolate this then you, as a user, are using Facebook for pretty much everything you do online. Having such a dependency on one platform, whether it’s Facebook or not, is scary.

In essence, I don’t see how Facebook offering us a place to put all our conversations together will necessarily cause us to abandon any of the tools we use. We’ll still use SMS, we’ll still use email, we’ll still IM. We may do it from one place online, but we’ll still be doing it.

And don’t forget we still need non data dependent platforms to communicate. I may not always have a data connection near me at which point relying on a data service for my communications is a bit useless. And that’s before you consider the people who don’t have smartphones.

Facebook messages will aid communication. It will organise and archive messages. It will be a layer on top of our existing communications. But I just can’t see it killing email in the way commentators are suggesting.


  1. Great post and I absolutely agree 1) with the fact that Google Wave was ahead of its time - I really liked Google wave and it was great for people like you and I, but for the average internet user it wasn't relevant or a necessity to their needs, but I hope one day it is ‘reincarnated’ and comes back. 2) With regard to depending on one platform – considering server crashes and the amount of data and the value/power this brings I absolutely don’t agree with having a single-purpose platform. If you look at the article that Berners-Lee wrote the other day in regard to the restrictions generated by companies such as Apple and Facebook creating these closed silos, those are reasons enough Facebook in my opinion is becoming too powerful. And finally 3) I personally associate Facebook with my personal life even still, and I’m not alone. In the same way you have a work mobile and personal mobile the same is true of email accounts so I just don’t’ see how this can be merged anytime soon as we would need to see a huge behavioural shift first ....

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